India has long suffered from a shortage of critically minded contemporary art exhibition spaces. Beside the booming commercial galleries, only a couple of museums have organized exhibitions of artists aged under 60. In this context the long-awaited Devi Art Foundation, owned by mother and son Lekha and Anupam Poddar, opened its doors to much acclaim. The foundation is located in Gurgaon, a satellite town of New Delhi where IT start-ups and sundry multinational firms have established headquarters. Tucked between Gurgaon’s office buildings and luxury shopping malls, and surrounded by potholed streets and construction sites, the building, designed by Aniket Bhagwat in an industrial style, echoes other international venues more than its immediate surroundings. Anupam Poddar started collecting in 1999 and has proceeded at a relentless pace. Building on his mother’s holdings of modern and folk art, he has amassed an unequalled collection of contemporary art from South Asia. Acquiring in depth from his favourite artists, Poddar has distinguished himself from other Indian art investors. The foundation will showcase three exhibitions a year, all based on its owners’ collection, and organized by guest curators.
The first exhibition, ‘Still Moving Image’, curated by Deeksha Nath, was dedicated to video and photography by 25 Indian artists. It drew on a wide spectrum of works and managed to bring in a few unexpected choices. In doing so, it engaged with a broad range of themes, such as the political trajectory of post-Independence India, especially the rise of the extremist Hindu right wing, gender inequality and representation, India’s alarming environmental record, and its chaotic urban experience. But its catch-all curatorial concept was sometimes difficult to gauge. The disappointing catalogue essay states that the exhibition is an ‘examination of images that “move us”’ and adds that ‘it is the investment of an “idea” that underscores many of the works’. While many ideas – maybe too many – made a strong case for the vibrancy of the exhibition, these did not always add up. Instead, the show should have stood up for what it is: a great selection of contemporary Indian art taken from a private collection.
In Tejal Shah’s I Love My India (2003) youngsters interviewed in a theme park were asked what they thought of Indian democracy while they were shooting at a group of balloons reading ‘I love my India’. When questioned on the anti-Muslim pogroms carried out in Gujarat in 2002, they could only vaguely remember what had happened. Several artists seemed to act against the widespread apathy that has led the middle class to disengage from mainstream politics. While in this case the documentary format proved adequate, other works felt contrived, such as Ranbir Kaleka’s video of a man standing in water holding a cockerel in his hands (Man with Cockerel 2, 2004) and Atul Bhalla’s video and photographs of himself killing a goat according to halal prescriptions in order to make a traditional form of water carrier out of the goat’s skin (Mashk, 2006).
More effectively, ‘Still Moving Image’ showed a predilection for photographs and medium-size installations that inventively rework the fabric of everyday Indian life. Vivan Sundaram’s Great Indian Bazaar (1997) consisted of an accumulation of photographs of bric-à-brac. Lighter in tone, Pushpamala N.’s series of humorous staged self-portrait photographs were confronted with Bharti Kher’s snappy takes on the Indian housewife.
Elsewhere Ram Rahman’s poised black and white portraits of male performers posing as female folk characters (Bhavai Actor, 1983) – the only conventional photography on display – added an intimate dimension, as did Sheba Chhachhi’s The Mermaid’s Mirror (2005), which consisted of a series of TV-like back-lit boxes that displayed portraits of legendary 1950s’ Bollywood actress Mina Kumar in a hypnotic evanescent light.
By contrast, Shilpa Gupta’s brilliant installation, Untitled (2006), was the only one to avoid references to India. Five people were invited to enter a room in which their shadows were projected onto a screen. Slowly, half-human, half-mechanized forms, suspended from puppet-like strings, entered the screen and converged towards the viewers’ shadows before crashing onto the floor to a grinding soundtrack. After merging with the harrowing landscape, the shadows were eventually submerged by the enigmatic forms. The installation made a truly lasting impression but felt disconnected from the other works. Yet, fittingly, such idiosyncratic choices reminded the viewer that the exhibition was based on elective affinities as much as the desire to make an authoritative statement about Indian contemporary art.
Despite its elusive curatorial line and the absence of a number of promising artists, the exhibition, with its vivid portrait of video- and photography-based practices in India today, was an exciting start for the foundation. With its planned educational programme and line-up of exhibitions (the next show will be a collaboration with Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, followed by an exhibition of contemporary art from Pakistan), the foundation seems ready to meet the expectations it has raised.